Tombeau de Messiaen … Speakings … Déserts

Jonathan Harvey
Tombeau de Messiaen
Concert à quatre
Mortuos plango, vivos voco
Speakings [BBC co-commission with IRCAM-Centre Pompidou and Radio France: World premiere]
Poème électronique

Cédric Tiberghien (piano), Emily Beynon (flute), Alexei Ogrintchouk (oboe) & Danjulo Ishizaka (cello)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Sound projection – Jérémie Henrot & Clément Marie for IRCAM and Ben Bayliss & Chris Beddall [Sound By Design] for BBC Proms with Jonathan Harvey

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 19 August, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jonathan Harvey. Photograph: Rosa HarveyJonathan Harvey’s three-year tenure as composer-in-association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has gradually yielded a trilogy of orchestral works based on what the composer calls “the Buddhist purification of body, mind and speech”. The final panel of the trilogy, Speakings, for orchestra and live electronics, was unveiled at an extraordinary concert that had all the hallmarks of a ‘contemporary blockbuster’ three-part Prom of the William Glock era, too rarely seen in recent times.

Advance word on Speakings had whet the appetite for some kind of benignly monstrous fusion of orchestra and digital voice and Harvey’s programme-note read enticingly of “shape vocoding” and the like. I doubt if I was the only listener wrong-footed by this. In the event, the electronic element was remarkably – even disappointingly – restrained, amounting to a faintly perceived aura around some of the orchestral passages and the very occasional recognisable phoneme. It took me some time to adjust my expectations of what the piece was going to sound like before I could properly focus on what Harvey had in fact produced. But having done that, it became clear that the work was altogether remarkable in its own right.

The three continuous movements of Speakings (playing for just under 30 minutes) follow the familiar trajectory of ‘darkness to light’ (that is similar to Harvey’s previous Proms commissions). The first movement is a nascent stirring that gropes toward the articulate clamour of the second, an elusive maelstrom of fragmentary gestures and pitch instability. Live electronic treatment of the sound of individual instruments becomes progressively more elaborate, quite obliterating the original sound source at times. Finally the tumult issues into the entranced third movement, a slow plateau of single chant-like lines which build to an overwhelming tutti, leaving the work to fade away in an enchanted garden of bell-like sonorities. These drift skywards and evaporate in the beautifully judged final bars.

The spirit of Stockhausen hung heavily over the whole piece – the ‘clownish’ style that passes for humour in the “Licht” cycle and specifically, in the final movement, Inori. Yet Harvey’s own transcendental musical language was the voice with which Speakings spoke and vouchsafed an utterly compelling experience.

Ilan VolkovIlan Volkov had evidently prepared the performance in customary meticulous fashion. If it was often difficult to tell what was coming from the stage and what from the speakers – a testament to the miraculous interweaving of the orchestral and electronic elements achieved by Volkov and the technical team, and of course Harvey himself. With no disrespect intended to his successor Donald Runnicles, it will be a black day for contemporary music in Scotland when Volkov moves on within the next year.

Speakings was preceded by Harvey’s now-classic purely electronic Mortuos plango, vivos voco, based entirely on computer manipulation of the sounds of the great tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral and the treble voice of the composer’s son. The Royal Albert Hall is the ideal acoustic space for this piece, its dome shape creating the bell interior inside which the boy’s voice flies. The multi-channel spatialisation was quite breathtaking.

Cédric TiberghienHarvey’s Tombeau de Messiaen opened the concert in striking fashion, with Cédric Tiberghien’s solo piano calling up another twelve microtonally-tuned ‘pianos’ in the speakers. Tiberghien’s performance was nothing less than sensational, effortlessly integrating with the electronics with not a click-track in sight.

Real Messiaen in the form of his last work, Concert à quatre, appropriately followed Harvey’s tribute. This is music in the ‘late manner’ par excellence, the familiar Messiaen stylistic traits by now indistinguishable from the musical invention itself. The four soloists were all individually persuasive but I would have welcomed more collective rapport. The piercingly sweet second movement ‘Vocalise’ was rapturously caught though.

For dessert we plunged into the never-dull world of Edgard Varèse. Déserts thrilled as ever with its black-hole chords sucking in everything that wasn’t nailed down and its resolutely lo-fi electronic interludes (though I could have stood higher volume). The enigmatic coda was unexpectedly moving. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra was well-drilled and incisive, even if the performance lacked the last word in visceral excitement that crack specialist groups such as Ensemble Modern bring to this repertoire. Last but not least the wild and woolly Poème électronique sounded startlingly up-to-date in its gleaming digital transfer; the ‘mad organist’ near the end was as splendidly Hammer Horror as ever!

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